Nameless cooks hustle in the opening montage of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s brutalist nightmare “The Platform.” Their kitchen is a blend of the delicate and the savage. A violinist plays as blades rip through fish, and the head chef caresses a dangling ham. When finished, they’ve assembled a still-life masterpiece of lobster, papaya and cake on a concrete slab. The feast could feed hundreds, but it never does. As it descends, level by level, down a residential tower, each pair of cellmates have minutes to gobble as much as they can before the food moves on to the next floor. With no distractions except for that day’s meal, the citadel is a test of survival and humanity. Says an intake officer (Antonia San Juan), “We prefer to call it a vertical self-management center.”
Gaztelu-Urrutia’s allegory is clear. What he’s after, though, isn’t as simple as eat the rich. He and writers David Desola and Pedro Rivera are curious about how the poor devour each other. On level 48, for example, mid-rank Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) spits on the scraps to feel powerful about his own position. (Spitefulness that political analysts know well.) Besides, Trimagasi rationalizes, they’d do the same thing to him — and they’ll have a chance in a month, when every survivor wakes up on a new floor, assigned at random. If good behavior counts for nothing, what motivation is there to be kind?
“The Platform” witnesses Trimagasi’s fear and cruelty through the point of view of new cellmate Goreng (Iván Massagué), first seen in a zoom so tight you can count his eyelashes. There’s no reason for cinematographer Jon D. Domínguez to step back — the main set-piece is a gray box, and besides, the daily feeding is more disgusting shot in extreme close-up of dirty fingers stuffing mouths with rice over the sounds of smacking. (If it wasn’t obvious, “The Platform” is not for the queasy.) Even a fantasy love scene between Goreng and a mysterious mute woman (Alexandra Masangkay) zooms in on their tongues.
Unlike Trimagasi, who was forced into the tower for killing a man — just an illegal immigrant, he shrugs — Goreng volunteered for a six-month stint. He wanted to quit smoking, earn a diploma and finally read “Don Quixote,” the one object he chose to bring into his cell. Unlucky for him, Trimagasi selected a knife, and the story behind it — an inadvertently anti-capitalist screed delivered by someone who deeply believes in capitalism — is one of the highlights of Desola and Rivera’s script. When Goreng dares suggest they portion out the food for the levels below, Trimagasi retorts, “Ration? You a communist?” From there, the movie searches for a way the selfish can be persuaded to share. Logic? Emotion? Threats? Violence?
Once the major ideas are on the table, the momentum wobbles and “The Platform” trades thrills for the empathetic weight of imprisonment. There’s more blood and less hope, though Aranzazu Calleja’s music box-inspired score can lighten the mood to that of a storybook fable. The film’s minimalist fury feels like the plays of Samuel Beckett. Massagué and Eguileor are up to being in a zesty “Waiting for Godot.” (Make that “Waiting for Gateau.”) And Eguileor’s nasty, delightful, occasionally tender performance feels like an audition to play a Bond villain, or perhaps the Spanish resurrection of Hannibal Lecter.
Still, given the prominence of Goreng’s paperback copy of “Don Quixote,” it’s surprising Lecter didn’t lean more on Miguel de Cervantes’ apropos quotations. Among his food-obsessed zingers, he popularized having your cake and eating it too, being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, putting all your eggs in one basket, that the proof is in the pudding, plus the apropos line: “Many count their chickens before they are hatched; and where they expect bacon, meet with broken bones.” Perhaps in “The Platform’s” native Spain, Cervantes’ interest in hunger and greed is so well known, the film didn’t see the point in stating the obvious.
Even when “The Platform” does give out information about, say, the mechanics of the tower, those details are usually wrong. After a few disorienting fake-out reveals, audiences have learned to doubt what they’re seeing, which is probably the point. No one should be trusted. Not Gaztelu-Urrutia. And if you’re swayed by “The Platform’s” cynical view of humanity, probably not even yourself.